Should Christians Criticize Each Other in Public?


Over my career as a writer and speaker I have had occasion to raise some concerns about certain individuals and institutions, including fellow Christians. I don’t go out of my way to do so. And I’m frankly suspicious of Christians who seem to have appointed themselves to run their own little Inquisitions.

Still, sometimes I’ve called someone out, both in Christian and in mainstream media. And invariably, upon such occasions, I (or my editor) will receive mail from Christians who denounce me for, yes, denouncing other Christians. “We shouldn’t shoot our own,” they say.

Well, here’s why I sometimes do. And why other Christians should, too.

First, I’m a Christian and, like all Christians, I try to follow the example of Jesus and the apostles. They criticized other believers—fairly routinely, as it appears in the pages of the New Testament. And they did so publicly, whether it was Paul withstanding Peter in front of other Christians, or various Christians disagreeing with each other and with Paul as to whether he should return to Jerusalem, or Paul criticizing individuals and whole churches in the public documents we know as epistles.

And lest we are tempted to ascribe all this to a cranky Paul, let’s remember that Jesus himself, at both ends of the New Testament, is capable of handing out some strong public criticism.

Look at the Gospels, whether what he says to Simon Peter (“Get behind me, Satan”—the likes of which I’ve never said to anyone, even at my most incensed) or what he says to the Pharisees who congratulate themselves on being sons of Abraham only to have Jesus say that their father instead is the devil (ditto). Then look at the Book of Revelation and what he says to some of the churches in chapters two and three. He hits hard.

So public criticism of other Christians or other public figures is clearly established by our Lord and his apostles as a normal part of Christian discourse.

Let’s notice, also, that these denunciations are rendered without any obvious attempt to follow the recommendations of Matthew 18:15-17. (This gets the prize for Bible Text Most Often Mentioned in This Context But Not Properly Understood.) Here it is:

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Matthew 18 is about the very particular case of someone sinning against another person personally. It isn’t a required pattern for all teachings and warnings. So neither Jesus nor the apostles feel obliged to follow it in other sorts of situations. Neither do I.

(It’s odd, by the way, how many times someone has castigated me for not following Matthew 18 but has done so publicly—that is, without following Matthew 18….)

The second reason I publicly criticize is that the New Testament exhorts us to exhort each other and warns us to warn each other of others in our midst who might lead us astray, bring shame upon the church, or otherwise harm the gospel. So we are not only given examples of public criticism, but also commands to undertake it. It is particularly part of the Christian teacher’s calling to Scripturally “rebuke and correct” (II Tim. 3:16). So I do.

Third, many people in the West since 9/11 have chastised moderate Muslims for being far too slow to publicly criticize their co-believers who engage in violence or other reprehensible activities. Since the election of Donald Trump and the recent outbreak of accusations of sexual harassment and worse, many have rebuked evangelical Christians in America along similar lines.

How are we to know, so this line of thinking goes, that the extremists are not representative of the mainstream if representatives of the mainstream don’t distance themselves from extremism?

Many of our neighbours have no more knowledge about, or respect for, Christians than they do members of any other religion. So unless we want those neighbours to carry around prejudices toward, and negative stereotypes of, Christians and Christianity, then some of us simply have to disavow what others of us have done in public. So I’m going to keep doing it—again, not on some sort of arrogant crusade, which is certainly not my calling, but from time to time if the occasion seems to warrant it.

Before I am criticized (!), however, for giving aid and comfort to every Christian malcontent and revenge-seeker among us, let’s be clear that the Scriptures mandate a number of qualifications we ought to meet before we sound off. Most basic of all is the motive of love: loving God, loving our fellow Christians, and loving our neighbours of every stripe.

As we compose our criticism, then, let’s be sure we are seeking the best interests of all the neighbours involved. That will include being sure to love those we reprimand–in what we say and how we say it.

But Christians have sometimes been accused of being far too ready to forgive and console and even shield perpetrators, especially if they are famous and influential, while ignoring their victims. Love surely must include speaking up on behalf of their victims—and for the benefit of those looking on as well—all of whom God loves. So I do.

And so should you.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).